Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Editor’s Note: Introducing a new recurring series, The Bomb Squad will take a look back at some of cinema’s most notorious failures. They can’t all make a ton of money, become critical darlings, or live on as cult classics. This recurring segment is about all the movies that bombed. We’ll try to take these movies apart and find out why they became duds.
“Gigli, it rhymes with ‘really’.”
In 2002 Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez met on the set of a movie written and directed by one of Hollywood’s most promising and demanding directors, Martin Brest. With a short history of clashing with producers, studios, and actors over creative differences Martin Brest nevertheless became an A-List director helming several notable films including Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Midnight Run (1988), Scent of a Woman (1992), and Meet Joe Black (1998). His 1979 picture Going in Style recently earned itself a remake starring Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin replacing the Hollywood legends George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. In 2003 Gigli introduced movie theaters to the super-couple “Bennifer” and killed Martin Brest’s career.
Looking back, the death of Brest’s career feels more like murder than collateral damage. The actors involved all managed to bounce back. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez both delivered serviceable performances in Jersey Girl (2004); Justin Bartha had a delightful turn in National Treasure (2004); Christopher Walken and Al Pacino have nearly unstoppable careers and only appeared in cameos. Even Lenny Venito continued to get good supporting roles in film and television like Law & Order or War of the Worlds (2005). The most perplexing part in all this, is that producers supposedly wrested control from Brest during production, re-writing and re-shooting the black comedy into a romantic comedy in an attempt to capitalize on the Bennifer craze. Such a story should exonerate the writer/director completely from the pathetic, contemptible movie that was ultimately released. Sadly, Martin Brest has not produced, written, or directed since Gigli. His reasons are his own, but one can’t help but wonder if this movie’s poor performance is to blame for the director’s vanishing act.
The movie begins reasonably enough with Affleck’s character Larry Gigli doing a tri-state tough-guy schtick directly into camera as he attempts to intimidate money out of a man bound and gagged inside of a laundromat dryer. He only manages to get half. His employer Louis (Venito) briefly reprimands him for failing to retrieve all of the money and not enacting retribution through physical violence. Luckily for Gigli, Louis requires his services for a more delicate matter and asks him to kidnap a mentally handicapped man named Brian Dorf (Bartha) in order to put pressure on his brother. Unbeknownst to Gigli, Louis also hires Ricki (Lopez) who shows up at Gigli’s apartment later so they can keep an eye on each other. What began as an almost surreal movie about displaced New York mobsters struggling to make a living in Los Angeles begins to shift into a movie that is practically a checklist of bad decisions. There’s a remote possibility that this film merely aged poorly, but it’s very difficult to justify most of its choices.
Lopez and Affleck have the chemistry of a couple, not a couple of bozos who just met. Their entire performance feels like one big inside joke. Her character is a lesbian who ends up falling in love and sleeping with his character who is so precisely unlikeable for the majority of the movie that it has to be a conscious decision. Bartha is basically playing Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt with a little Tourette’s Syndrome thrown in and not much hint of the idiot-savant. This is one of those movies where characters talk to each other in monologues. It can be very effective, and Lopez and Affleck certainly give it their all but it fails to congeal into anything promising. Whatever tone the movie is trying to set is completely shattered by the insulting musical cues of the soundtrack. The film’s protagonist is set-up to be a self-sabotaging wannabe and that’s exactly what the movie itself turned out to be. Walken and Pacino play a detective and a mob boss respectively who each show up to deliver a nearly uninterrupted monologue to give the illusion of threat and stakes but both then promptly disappear from the movie. Worse yet is Ricki’s ex-girlfriend Robin (Missy Crider) who bursts into Gigli’s apartment and slits her own wrists out of desperation. The scene is both misplaced within the rom-com narrative and seems to belong to an entirely different movie. The only loose thread that feels like it might have survived unscathed in any version of the movie is Gigli’s mother, played by Laine Kazan. Her only scene is embarrassingly stereotypical and she exists merely to tease and torment her son, but at least she seems to enjoy herself. The mother character also gets the ball rolling on calling Gigli out on his fragile masculinity nonsense even if it never really amounts to much.
In Rain Man, Tom Cruise’s character is redeemed and forges a real connection with his estranged brother. In Chasing Amy, Affleck’s character learns some important, harsh lessons and experiences serious personal growth. In Gigli, he falls in love with something unattainable and attains it, riding away into the sunset with his bi-curious not-girlfriend. Yes his character opens up a little and becomes less of a certified jerk, but he also sacrifices nothing in the process except for his livelihood which, by his own admission, “sucks”. The closest thing to pay off the movie has is set up pretty early and slowly sustained with small bits. Gigli was able to lure Brian out of Wilshire Adult Care by promising to take him to “The Baywatch” which is a location where Brian believes “the sex is” because the women on Baywatch make his “penis sneeze”. Gigli is able to stall for several days by insisting he is receiving calls on his flashlight informing him that The Baywatch is currently closed. Brian is seen enjoying dancing frantically to old-school hip-hop and frequently calls a telephone weather service in Australia because he “really likes the sound of her voice.” During the movie’s finale, Brian spots a film crew on the beach and gleefully exclaims that “The Baywatch is open” and Gigli is convinced to pull over. Gigli informs the authorities of Brian’s location and allows him to mingle with the extras on set. Forced to pair up, Brian approaches an extra who is revealed to possess an Australian accent, much to his delight. The scene requires them to dance and Brian eventually does so, apparently having the time of his life. It doesn’t make up for kidnapping him, and it definitely doesn’t make up for sitting through this movie, but there you go.
The late, great Roger Ebert himself apparently got a kick out of a few of the scenes in this movie, and it has its defenders who like to point out it’s not nearly as bad or unwatchable as the bad press surrounding it suggests. It appears to me that what happened is that studio meddling took what was ultimately an eccentric black comedy with dramatic elements and tried to cobble together a formulaic romantic comedy with the pieces. The result is barely a movie. It’s not a functional piece of cinema. If you’re enamored with Affleck’s accents you might find some silly charm in Larry Gigli and a handful of bits are worth watching. Justin Bartha is also pretty incredible as Brian which implies far more range than his role as generic white guy Doug in The Hangover trilogy suggests. Martin Brest apparently always had an eye for casting and it’s a shame his little project about displaced New Yorkers didn’t amount to anything good or interesting. The plot simply has no propulsion and the character work is either wasted or undercut. The original version supposedly featured far more of Walken’s character and ended with him killing Affleck’s. I don’t particularly despise Larry Gigli, but that’s definitely a version of the movie I would pay good money to watch.